Brexit on WTO terms is far better than leaving the EU with a fatally flawed deal

Brexit on WTO terms is far better than leaving the EU with a fatally flawed deal

I am standing for election as Leader of the Conservative Party for many reasons. I believe in building a fairer Britain for working people, a land of opportunity for the aspirational and entrepreneurial, and an economy which gives workers a fairer deal, lowering taxes and ending consumer rip-offs.

But I have no illusions about what will be in my inbox on my first morning at No. 10, if I am elected Leader. Brexit. The Gordian Knot of British Politics, the apparently unsolvable puzzle that politicians have so far failed to undo in a way which reflects the democratic will of our people. That prospect doesn’t daunt me. In contrast to the army of nay-sayers and professional pessimists in Parliament and the media, I am confident that we can and must deliver Brexit – and that it presents huge opportunities for us to grasp.

As a former Foreign Office lawyer and Brexit Secretary, this process bears all of the classic hallmarks of international diplomacy. Having seen the process up close and personal, I also appreciate how intensely political it is for both sides.

Serious negotiating mistakes have been made, but in any negotiation you can’t just turn the clock back. We are where we are. So, my starting point is that there is still – just about – scope for a reasonable compromise with the EU to achieve a deal, although it will require the EU to demonstrate a level of pragmatism and goodwill that has been absent since 2016.

At the same time, we must recognise the UK’s fundamental strategic mistake, in failing to retain the prospect of leaving on World Trade Organisation terms as a fall-back position. Ruling out a no-deal Brexit was the rough equivalent, in negotiating terms, of taking out a gun, carefully loading a bullet into each chamber, and presenting it to your opposite number with an invitation to use it, if required.

We need to change the narrative. We need to reset the terms of the negotiation, and we need to restore our negotiating leverage. I am the only candidate in this contest who has set out a clear and credible plan.

We should engage with our EU partners, by reverting with a final offer to overhaul the backstop, as approved by Parliament in the form of the so-called Malthouse compromise.

We would also make clear that the end destination for our future relationship must centre on a ‘best in class’ Free Trade Agreement (such as the EU-Canada agreement), not a Customs Union or any other hybrid arrangement requiring close regulatory alignment.

This is both constructive and reasonable – a final attempt to bridge the gap with our EU partners, in a way that allows us to take back control of our laws and forge an independent global free trade policy, tailored to UK needs and interests.

This approach must be backed up by a disciplined Cabinet, in which every member of the top team is willing to keep our 2017 election manifesto promises. And it must be reinforced by an early Budget. That way, we can demonstrate to business and the country that the Government is absolutely committed to seeing us through any short-term risks or disruption, and making a success of Brexit.

Leaving on WTO terms is not the preferred outcome, but it is far better than leaving with a fatally flawed deal. If the EU stubbornly refuse to budge, it is the principled and practical solution to the position in which we find ourselves. The alternative – of protracted and prolonged uncertainty – would be far worse for our country.

Of course, the predictable voices are already emerging to obstruct this strategy by suggesting a range of parliamentary procedural ruses, which have made sensible decision-making more difficult since the last election.

These are always presented as great matters of constitutional principle, although the constitution which is prayed in aid seems to be a very mutable one, adapted on each occasion for the convenience of those who want to frustrate or derail, rather than deliver, the will of the British people.

That has to end. Leaving the EU on WTO terms is presented by the doom-mongers as an apocalyptic outcome that will leave British business in ruins. But in truth, the endless uncertainty that has gripped the UK since the referendum is much worse. Not only for business, which can’t plan ahead, but for public trust in our democracy.

We politicians were given a clear mandate in June 2016: take us out of the European Union. We have failed to deliver. The fact that the country had to go through the pantomime of the recent European Parliament elections was a grotesque reminder of that failure – and the Conservative Party was punished by voters for its part in that failure.

We cannot afford to continue on that path to political oblivion any longer. My commitment is to deliver Brexit, and to make sure it happens at the end of October. I will not countenance another extension. I am confident, as a recent Institute for Government report made clear, that a resolute Prime Minister could steer a course to leaving on WTO terms at the end of October. I am committed to that, because we need to get Brexit done and move on. I am also convinced that it is the best way to give us our best shot at an eleventh hour deal with the EU that would be acceptable.

When Alexander the Great was presented with the original Gordian Knot, he took his sword and cut it in half with a single stroke. It is time to bring this tortuous Brexit process to an end. It is time for a clean break. We should keep the arm of friendship extended to our EU neighbours. But, if we have to leave on a WTO basis, then so be it. It is high time all of us as politicians delivered on the Brexit promises we have made to the people of the United Kingdom.